Welcome To Charlotte Man's Refuge, 32 Miles Out To Sea

Sep 12, 2018

This week we’ve heard public officials urge caution and mandatory evacuations as Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas.

But Richard Neal of Charlotte would rather be out to sea in his home away from home – an old Coast Guard light station 32 miles off the coast. It’s called Frying Pan Tower, and he owns it.

Neal couldn’t head out there this week because of work, but wishes he could be there like he has for other powerful storms.

As part of a collaboration between Our State magazine and WFAE to highlight stories from across North Carolina, Our State’s Jeremy Markovich took a trip to Frying Pan Tower this summer for a first-hand look at a facility that’s weathered storm after storm.

To get to this destination, you have to charter a boat, and then ride for an hour-and-a-half out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Frying Pan Tower is an old Coast Guard light tower that sits 32 miles off the coast, southeast of Wilmington. It looks like a pizza box that sits on top of four skinny metal legs with something that resembles an airport control tower on one corner — that’s where the actual light is. The coast guard built Frying Pan Tower in the 1960s to warn ships about the shallow water nearby, but the coast guard stopped using it 15 years ago. Today, if you want to go up in the tower and you don’t have a helicopter to drop you off, you have to get hoisted up 80 feet from the boat below by sitting down on a tiny little seat attached to a rope.

Once I got up there, I went up the metal steps to the helipad, and then even higher up to the very top of the light tower: 133 feet above the water. Even from this height, you can’t see land. Richard Neal — the man who owns this whole thing — talked as a wind turbine buzzed in the background. So, why did he buy this?

"Well if you're old enough to know what the actual comic book is you know in the back of it they used to have advertisements, 'Buy a jeep from the government for $5!,' and silly things that the government would give away," Neal said.

He continued. "So, I literally — in the middle of the recession, '08/'09 —was looking around on different web sites just trying to figure out, what was out there? And the next thing was this strange looking box on stilts that was in the middle of the water. I kind of went back to that and said, ‘What on earth is that?’ I don't know if that was lucky or unlucky but I was the only guy that bid on it."

Richard lives in south Charlotte. He’s a software developer by day, and he’d never been to the Frying Pan Tower before he bought the place, sight unseen, for $88,000 back in 2010. The first time he walked in, it was like opening up a time capsule.

“Things in different rooms were still there and had been there for 20 years," he said. "Like an old briefcase opened up, with a cigar sitting in an ashtray next to it. A Hustler magazine and an old Coors — and it was not a Coors light. That's how old it was.”

The structure was old and rusty, but structurally sound. Over the next two years, Richard turned it into a really remote but fully stocked bed and breakfast. Things were going well — until 2014, when Hurricane Arthur came right at Frying Pan Tower with Richard and his family inside.

We had a helicopter coming out the next day because a hurricane was supposed to be there Friday,” Neals said. “Next morning, the winds were supposed to be 35 miles an hour and they were 54 miles an hour.  The helicopter [pilot] said, ‘We're not coming.' So my daughter's biggest concern was that the cake that she baked fell because of the shaking. So, you know the Culligan water jug was sloshing back and forth and we did have one window blow in, but we all got together and put a big piece of steel over it. Then we went back to eating dinner.”

During the storm, Richard took videos with a GoPro camera. He walked outside to get a shot of the waves.

“It’s a mountain of water,” he said on video.

And he went up on the helipad, into 100 mile per hour winds, saying “It’s invigorating.”

He even dropped a camera down to get a look at the fish.

And then, he uploaded the videos to YouTube. He never lost generator power or internet, because internet comes in through a radio connection from shore. That allowed him to call in live to CNN:

Well, the strangest thing about a hurricane is on shore they’re dangerous and scary. They should be because things get blown through the air and they hit you and kill you. Out here, there's nothing to hit you but water, and the water you have on a pair of safety glasses and you have a safety line on. There isn't [much that's] really extraordinary. The winds can get where they would blow you off the top, but again you have your safety line on. So, the sky will turn an amazing turquoise color. The seas will look like sherbet because there's so much air mixed in them and you don't have waves anymore. You have large rolling hills that just go flying past you. So, if you can imagine a 20 or 30 foot wave that's doing about 15 or 20 knots just ripping along, and it's strange because these legs are so thin that it just rolls right past. And you don't feel the force of it at all."

Jeremy Markovich: You have you have an amazing ability to make insane stuff sound like a day at the beach.
Richard Neal: I wouldn't want to be out on the beach during a hurricane.
Jeremy Markovich: Are we in North Carolina right now?
Richard Neal: No.
Jeremy Markovich: Are we in the United States right now?
Richard Neal: No.
Jeremy Markovich: So where are we?
Richard Neal: International Waters. If you were out here you could technically have a casino. You could have a brothel. You could have an international bank.

Richard has not done any of those things, by the way. Another thing he’s not going to do is ride out Hurricane Florence on Frying Pan Tower. He’s staying home.

And that’s one less thing for the Coast Guard to worry about.

When we do stay out here during a hurricane, we give them a heads up and say ‘You know, we're our own fools. We're on our own. We understand that.’ ”

And when you’re out here in good weather or bad, it’s also easy to understand that isolation isn’t always what you think it’ll be.

If you want to hear more about what it’s like to stay on Frying Pan Tower, how it functions, and why it’s up for sale, you can find the answers in the newest episode of Away Message, Our State magazine’s podcast about hard to find people, places, and things. To listen, just search for Away Message wherever you get your podcasts.